THE WALDHEIM WALTZ
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ruth Beckermann
Screenwriter: Ruth Beckermann
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/24/18
Opens: October 19, 2018
Pete Seeger once sang a Tom Paxton song, a section going like this:
What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine,
What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine.
I learned our country must be strong, it’s always right and never wrong,
Our leaders are the finest men, and we elect them again and again,
And that’s what I learned in school today, that’s what I learned in school.
Don’t you think it’s true that in America all our leaders are the finest men? Grade school optimism of this nature would not fare well in other countries, as their presidents and prime ministers are not as saintly as ours. Take the bottom-feeder that came out of Austria. No, not that one. Think of Kurt Waldheim, Wouldn’t it have been great if that war criminal, that Viennese vulture, spent his life baking sachertortes instead of taking part in Nazi paramilitary activities? Instead the one-time president of Austria repeatedly states throughout this documentary that he was just a soldier drafted by Germany to serve on the Russian front. What he conceals while at the same time virtually shooting himself in the foot by his denials, that he knew nothing about the shooting of Serb civilians one hundred meters from his office in Yugoslavia nor did he have any knowledge of the deportation of 12,000 Jews from Salonika, Greece during the years of World War II particularly 1942-43.
Maybe he lied, maybe he didn’t. But there is enough doubt sowed here to have caused the Austrian voters to demur about casting ballots for him when he ran for president in 1986. He won on the second ballot with 53.8% of the vote.
Filmmaker Ruth Beckermann, who has considerable experience with documentaries, is adept at dramas as well. Before “The Waldheim Waltz” she traveled across Europe and the Mediterranean to unfold “The Dreamed Ones,” focused on chance encounters with the likes of Nigerian asylum seekers in Sicily, an Arab musician in Galilee, nationalists drunk on beer in Vienna, and veiled young women trying to cross a busy road in Alexandria. She provides voiceover narration throughout “The Waldheim Waltz,” which concentrates on the 1986 presidential election, showing archival film from the forties and from Waldheim’s tenure as UN Secretary General. One must wonder at the kind of world that existed in 1972 to allow this fellow, later banned from travel in the U.S. for lying about his service in the S.A., or Sturmabterlung, the Nazi paramilitary force.
The most dramatic incident occurs when, during a street confrontation between pro-Waldheim people on the street and those opposed, a member of the former group yells to Beckermann and to all around gathered to watch the action, “You belong in the ground, you Jewish swine.” Then to another in the crowd, “Are you a Jewboy? A Jewboy?” This antisemitism is nothing new for Austrians. To this day, they consider themselves citizens who suffered just like the Jews under the Nazis since the Anschluss, or annexation of their country to Germany. The reality is that crowds turned out to cheer wildly for Hitler and generally to show that the majority, perhaps, were quite comfortable attaching themselves to another German-speaking country.
We can’t fail to add that Waldheim’s “memory loss” or “amnesia” about his wartime activities brings to mind similar situations that have arisen here in the U.S. as politicians, grilled by journalists and congressional committees to ‘fess up about shady dealings in their past, have “no recollection.” This is not to say that any office holder or candidate for high-level jobs is on the same base level as was a member of a Nazi paramilitary organization. This is just the way that we, watching local politics about the Kavanaugh hearings in particular, can have an AHA! moment. This is what dirty politics is all about. It’s no wonder that so many of our citizens have given up on participating even once every two years in the simple act of casting ballots, given that neither Tweedledum nor Tweedledee will be able to solve or even to bother understanding the real problems that all but the richest one percent face.
94 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B